Not quite a month ago, General Electric, along with partners Emerald Technology Ventures, Foundation Capital, KPCB and Rockport Capital, launched a project (see video), called the Ecomagination Challenge, which would ultimately offer $200 million in venture capital for energy innovation ideas in the field of “digital energy market space.” (Ecomagination is GE’s brand for its renewable energy and environment-related initiatives.)

I am not sure what GE exactly means by “digital energy market space.” It was easy to assume this meant future grid technologies, but GE also goes on to explain that the challenge is also open to innovations related to renewables and new building technologies.

The idea is to submit proposals to GE through a special Ecomagination Challenge portal, and that these proposals discuss both the submitter’s innovation and desired relationship to GE. The deadline for submitting ideas is Sept. 30, 2010.

Although I am sure that GE et al sincerely want to solicit ideas for innovations, it feels like the companies perhaps have a different and, perhaps, more interesting concept behind this challenge: Can it harness social media and crowd sourcing for technical product development? Can it develop some online credibility and reputation for being an innovative place to work and partner with?

For example, consider the structure of the website for submitting ideas. Besides asking for a “clear, detailed proposal describing an innovative, original smart grid technology,” and a request that submitters disclose any patents or patent applications related to a submission, GE goes on to make one final request: “We’d also like to know about you, your team, and how you came up with the idea. A video is optional but a simple photo of you, your organization or your team is required.”

Then, once a brief version of a new concept is posted, public is encouraged to look at the ideas, comment on them and even vote on them. The website also facilitates the growth of a “challenge community,” a la Facebook, and has a world map of where ideas have come from. A blog provides updates on the progress of the challenge.

GE has even developed special iPhone, iTouch and iPad apps to track the challenge and to cast votes.

But, the public’s votes won’t ultimately carry all the weight, although the idea with the most votes will receive $50,000, subject to GE’s review. The website says the ultimate decision for other winners rests with GE and its partners. It says a panel of judges will select five innovation challenge award winners by Nov. 30, 2010, based on some fairly standard criteria:

  • Merit;
  • Reliance on science and engineering fundamentals;
  • Innovative character;
  • Potential to create significant societal impact;
  • Commercial feasibility in light of applicable market dynamics; and
  • Other factors deemed appropriate by the judges.

Each of the five will receive $100,000 in cash. It says the panel of judges may also give one or more entrants a “GE Scientific Merit Award” to work with its Global Research Center.

So, where does the $200 million come in? That’s the amount of capital GE and its partners are pledging to invest in the ideas that come out of the challenge.

It will be interesting to see how this evolves, and how much of a community develops over the next few months. The quality of the ideas vary quite a bit, and it appears that a lot of them are based on renewable energy concepts that, while scientifically interesting, don’t seem to have direct connection to the “digital energy” theme. But, the buzz seems to be building. As of this morning there had already been 953 submissions, 8189 registered users, 7290 comments and over 11,000 votes cast.